There will be a lot of debate over whether or not Captain Marvel is Marvel Studio’s first major misfire since Thor: The Dark World in 2013.
It’s a debut superhero film that tries to reach for a higher purpose with mixed successes but admirable ambition. The directorial team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) brings hints of their intimate charms to the movie but sometimes feel lost in the sea of plot and incident required to move a major superhero story from beat to beat.
As the titular heroine, Brie Larson is similarly swimming in the conundrum of playing a character whose superficial personality traits are often all she can express until the story allows her to rediscover herself. The humor is scattershot but mostly lands thanks to Ben Mendelsohn and Samuel L. Jackson; the emotional beats shine thanks to Larson and Lashana Lynch’s performances. Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it will likely benefit from re-watch; the character’s complexity takes an entire film to reveal itself. When it does, the journey feels worth it, but getting there is more hit and miss than Marvel Studios has been in half a decade.
Carol Danvers (Larson) is a commando who fights for the glory of the alien Kree empire, a warlike race who value their society above all else (think pretty Klingons). Their primary foes are the Skrulls, reptilian humanoids who can shape-shift and whose terrorism campaign has plagued worlds on the outskirts of the empire and now threatens to advance to the center. After Carol is captured by the Skrulls, she escapes and ends up on Earth circa 1995, teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. desk jockey Nick Fury (Jackson) to uncover the secret behind her powers and her forgotten past.
Carol’s journey of self-discovery is structured in a way unique to Marvel Studios and feels like an obvious attempt to stay fresh by the 20-movie-deep production team. It may be off-putting to some. Captain Marvel — in the comics and now her feature film — suffers from a difficult high concept. Her appeal comes from a plurality of character traits and what she ultimately stands for. Look, most of the Marvel movies play off the drama of putting one of their simple characters into a situation that challenges their inherent character trait. Throw Captain America into a scenario that challenges his moral code; give Iron Man a scenario that confronts his narcissism; make Spider-Man juggle multiple life choices while punching a man in a jetpack. Simple characters thrust into simple situations. Danvers isn’t that kind of superhero.
A story featuring Carol Danvers requires a defter script and approach to story because it requires every other supporting character to, well, support her journey in substantial ways. There just needs to be an emotional infrastructure with which she can interact. Her journey is about overcoming internalized attitudes about herself and the things of which she is capable. She has to decide who she is in a world where everyone around her wants to define her for their own ends. Thankfully the performances around her are up to snuff. As Carol’s best friend from the past, Maria Rambeau, Lynch carries the emotional weight of the second act. Giving Danvers amnesia for a lot of Captain Marvel is a decent shortcut for an origin movie, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do when they let her get deeper into the dramatic weeds of conflicting loyalties and impetuous decisions.
Setting the film in 1995 makes for some fun needle drops and chronology jokes, and your mileage will vary with those. There is one particular song during the final fight scene that made me very happy. Boden & Fleck nail the ’90s tone of the film. Characters and beats feel like direct homages to that era of action cinema — which was basically subsumed by the birth of the modern superhero genre in 2000. Full circle. Anyway: a wisecracking hero, a precocious exposition-spouting little girl, rogue government agents, etc. It’s all here, and done with genuine love for that era. Larson doesn’t nail the wisecracks, but she’s also much more expressive than our stoic ’90s hero actors with their monotone intonations and immobile faces. I like Larson in the role, and I think there are cultural preferences that play against her. Think Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight — not in character necessarily but more in casting against type.
Also borrowed fromKiss is a younger version of Samuel L Jackson, here digitally de-aged to perfection. Marvel has been toying with this technology for the last few movies in bits and pieces but never to this extent. It pays off. Not all the de-aged cameos look half as good as Jackson, though. We’re still a ways away from a movie starring octogenarians as 30-year-old versions of themselves.
Action-wise, the sequences are clear and well-paced. Viewers who complain of fatigue over the “big blowout third act” element of the Marvel template will be pleased to know that isn’t the case here, and that the climax is an emotional rather than visceral one. There are plenty of fisticuffs and explosions, but it might be the smallest and most contained in scale since Ant-Man (and without the benefit of a shrinking hero).
There are certainly plot nitpicks to be had. Maybe 10 more minutes were needed to flesh out certain characters to make some of the final stretch feel more meaningful; quite a lot of the story rides on the shoulders of the actors where a more effective script would’ve done wonders. This is par for the course with Marvel, a franchise built on an imperfect film buoyed by one great performance. Here we have at least four. So it goes.
Does Captain Marvel work as a feminist text? That’s not for me to decide, and really for nobody to decide but the viewer. It features overt jokes aimed at the mostly-male hubbub surrounding it online. Danvers’ main nemesis is a mentally abusive relationship. Women are central to the story, more present than they’ve ever been in a Marvel movie. Given Black Panther‘s success, there seems to be a lot of expectations riding on whether Captain Marvel feels as revolutionary, which is unfair. Decide for yourself what it means to you. That’s the whole point of the movie.
Captain Marvel is likely the first in a new stretch of Marvel films that shirk some of the franchise’s formula and try to experiment with different kinds of stories. It will not be the social phenomenon on the level of Black Panther, which in some ways feels like the apotheosis of Marvel’s first decade (despite the plot coming to a head in April’s Avengers: Endgame). Panther was the culmination of a well-worn story structure coming together with a unique aesthetic and thematic vision to create what is probably the consummate Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Captain Marvel is much messier and more destructive, taking a chance on a different kind of character and a different way of telling a superhero origin. It does not always succeed, but when it does, it soars. It may grow on you.